Cook Children's Dietitian Shares How to Get More Nutrition, Spend Less at the Grocery Store
In recent months, more families in her consultations have voiced concern about inflation driving up the price of healthful foods. Kaitlin Smith, M.S. R.D. L.D. coaches families on affordable ways to eat nutritiously.
By Jean Yaeger
The rising prices of eggs, meat and other foods can make the cost of groceries hard to swallow these days.
But knowing some tricks for savvy shopping could help cut your grocery bill without sacrificing the nutritional value of the food you buy.
There’s no better time than National Nutrition Month -- in March -- to talk about the importance of fueling children and adolescents with the optimal foods for the growth and development of their bodies and brains. What we eat impacts energy, the risk for obesity, certain diseases, blood sugar levels, learning and more.
Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture lay out the core elements that make up a healthy diet: Vegetables and fruits of all types and colors; whole grains, dairy including milk, yogurt and cheese; proteins including lean meats, seafood and nuts; and oils including vegetable oils. Children and teens need a variety of nutrients, such as calcium for strong bones, protein to build muscles, iron for oxygen-rich blood and fiber for easier bowel movements.
Kaitlin Smith, M.S. R.D. L.D. meets with patients in the Cook Children’s Endocrinology Clinic for issues such as diabetes and obesity. Smith and her dietitian colleagues at Cook Children’s provide education on weight management, counting carbohydrates and other nutrition-related topics.
In recent months, she said, more families in her consultations have voiced concern about inflation driving up the price of healthful foods. When the subject comes up, Smith coaches those families on affordable ways to eat nutritiously.
“It doesn't have to look like you're buying grass-fed beef or free-range chicken. That's what a lot of people picture, is we have to buy these expensive health foods or have top-of-the-line everything, and that's not true,” she said.
Smith outlined a few strategies for nutritional value at lower cost:
- Buy frozen or canned vegetables and fruits. “You're still getting good nutrients. They’re going to last longer, and it’s usually cheaper.” Look for fruit cups with fruit juice, not syrup.
- Seek out the more nutritious versions of food – for instance, brown rice instead of white rice, whole-grain pasta instead of pasta containing refined flours. “You're getting more nutrition for your dollar.”
- Eat more beans. “Beans are so affordable and nutrient dense. Beans of any kind are a great source of protein, fiber and iron.”
- Stock up and freeze meat when it goes on sale.
- Buy generic. Name-brand labels tend to cost more for foods with the same nutrient components as the generics.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics points to additional key steps for preparing nutritious meals on a tight budget. How? Stick with a shopping list. Incorporate meatless meals a few days each week. Buy nonperishable staples, such as dried beans and lentils, in bulk. Use produce and other perishables first. Eat leftovers the next day for lunch. Freeze what you won’t eat right away.
“The key to smart, budget-friendly grocery shopping is planning ahead,” according to the Academy. “Plan meals around fresh produce, lean protein foods and low-fat dairy items that are on sale and in season to save money while eating healthy.”
Take breakfast, for example. Smith recommends oatmeal with a little milk and fruit as a low-cost option. Lunch could be turkey and cheese on whole-wheat bread, with a side of carrots or fruit.
“We have protein, we have fiber, we have fruits and vegetables available, and that's way cheaper than if you picked up a sandwich at a drive-through place,” Smith said.
For dinner, Smith suggests stir fry using a bag of mixed vegetables and a little chicken or beef over noodles or rice. Frequent dinners in her home consist of burrito bowls made with brown rice, black beans, avocado and cheese – affordable, and yummy to her young son.
Families can stretch their food dollars by turning to recipes such as Slow Cooker Vegetarian Chili Mac - Kristine's Kitchen (kristineskitchenblog.com), which yields six servings at a cost of $1.66 per serving. Smith pointed out that a fast food meal for one person costs $6 or $7 on average.
“For the amount of money that you're spending on fast food or convenience foods, a much more nutritious option can be made at home. You’re getting less calories, less fat, less salt from not eating as many of those highly processed foods,” she said. “And if you're cooking at home, there are usually leftovers that you can eat throughout the week, which saves you money. It’s an all-around better option.”
Smith encourages families to take small steps to improve their nutrition routine. Changing too much all at once probably won’t establish a lasting habit, she said.
“Healthy eating does not have to be perfect,” she said. “Even if we swap out one to two fast food meals per week, that is still progress. Incorporate a vegetable into one meal every day, and then just build off of that. Just try to make realistic goals that are attainable for your family.”
National Nutrition Month highlights the importance of wholesome foods – and the dietitians who help children and teens make informed choices about what they eat.
“I love simplifying healthy eating for my patients and reminding them that it doesn't have to be about a fad diet or expensive supplements or expensive health foods. I just love when I can empower people to take ownership of their health and make those small consistent changes to reach their overall health goals.”